What is Gene Editing and How Could it Impact our Food?
A guide to the new genetic engineering techniques of gene editing, how it could impact our food system and the potential risks to human health.
Are New GMOs Coming Soon?
There is a lot of excitement in the media and research community about a collection of new genetic engineering techniques called “gene editing.” These new techniques are powerful and could lead to more genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our grocery stores.
Gene editing techniques, also called genome editing, can be used to alter the genetic material of plants, animals and other organisms. These techniques aim to insert, delete or otherwise change a DNA sequence at a specific, targeted site in the genome.
Much of the discussion about using genome editing is in the field of human health but there is also a lot of research into using it to make new crop plants and farm animals, and even insects (though most news stories are about experiments that are in very early stages and may or may not actually lead to new foods on the market.) However, similar to first-generation genetic engineering, genome editing techniques are moving quickly in the lab to create new foods, even while our knowledge about how genomes work remains incomplete.
The genome is the entire set of genetic material in an organism, including DNA.
Genome editing most often uses DNA cutters that are guided to a location within an organism’s DNA and used to cut the DNA. This cut DNA is then repaired by the cell’s own repair mechanism, which creates “edits” or changes to the organism. The most frequently used genome editing technique is called CRISPR, but other techniques follow similar principles.
There is currently only one genome-edited organism on the market in Canada: an herbicide tolerant canola from the company Cibus. This GM canola, like all other GMOs, is prohibited in organic farming and is excluded from products certified as Non-GMO Project Verified.
Unexpected and Unpredictable Effects
Genome editing can be imprecise, and cause unexpected and unpredictable effects.
Many studies have now shown that genome editing can create genetic errors, such as “off-target” and “on-target” effects. These effects can lead to unexpected and unpredictable outcomes, such as changes in protein composition, in the resulting GMO.
Despite these many potential impacts, there are no standard protocols yet to detect off-target and on-target effects of genome editing.
Sometimes intended changes that are created by genome editing techniques are described as “mutations” because only very small parts of DNA are altered and no novel genes have been intentionally introduced. However, even small changes in a DNA sequence can have big effects.
The functioning of genes is coordinated by a complex regulatory network that is still poorly understood. This means that it is not possible to predict the nature and consequences of all the interactions between altered genetic material and other genes within an organism. For example, one small genetic change can impact an organism’s ability to express or suppress other genes.
New Report by CBAN
For more information and discussion about genome editing, read the new report from the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network “Genome Editing in Food and Farming: Risks and Unexpected Consequences.” The report and an introductory factsheet are available online at www.cban.ca/GenomeEditingReport.
For updates or to find out more, visit: www.cban.ca/genome-editing.